Advice on quotes from a ‘quote guy’

Req: A, E, N

Bob Steele at Poynter gives some advice on the troublesome issue of quotes:

My Poynter colleagues and I get quoted all the time. We do hundreds of interviews every year with reporters who are writing about a range of issues, from ethics to ownership changes. On occasion, I see a quote attributed to me that I’m pretty darned sure doesn’t match what I said.

Sometimes my quote has proper grammar when I know I butchered the verb tense in the interview. The reporter cleaned me up.

[Continue reading The Pitfalls of Fixing Quotes]

News organizations and individuals handle the subject of quote fixing in a variety of ways, from the benign to the suspect:

  • Removing verbal fillers (e.g., “uh,” “um” or, in Spanish, “este”).
  • Rendering verbal communication in a more proper written standard (e.g., “shoulda” to “should’ve”… or as one of my reporters incorrectly tried, “should of”).
  • Correcting grammar (e.g., “I ain’t got no” becomes “I don’t have any”).
  • Using quotes around a paraphrase (as Janet Malcolm discusses in The Journalist and the Murder).

Each of these has its own problems. I draw a hard line in front of rewording quotes into paraphrases while leaving the quote marks, even if it conveys the “spirit” of the quote. That’s what paraphrases and partial quotes are for.

When it comes to correcting grammar, I recommend avoiding it. There are those who suggest that it’s fair practice to clean up quotes because the writer is rendering oral communication in a written medium. However, I’ve noticed a tendency to be selective in the correction. For example, a writer corrects the mayor’s quote but leaves as is the quote from a single mother, despite the fact that the two made identical errors. The same can be said of verbal fillers, where teen quotes are too frequently rendered with their “likes” and “you knows” while adult speakers get a pass.

If you try to clean up a speaker’s grammar, it’s also too easy to “pull a Quayle” and correct something that you thought was wrong only to discover that it was correct in the first place. And even if you are fair and correct, the quote might no longer sound like the person being quoted.

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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.

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